Most of the time, when I sit down to write, I have a good idea of where I’m going and how I’m going to get there.
This is not one of those times.
What I’m about to do is both dangerous and difficult: I’m going to talk about race.
For the past few years, racial tension and hatred have been at critical levels, spilling over in violence and riots in real life. On social media, however, this has manifested itself in an increase in sharing racist garbage. I call these people “Facebook racists” because in real life, they probably wouldn’t act this way, but emboldened by social media, they’ll share things that would otherwise be unthinkable.
Social Media Racists
I’m going to let the “social media racists” speak for themselves before I try to analyze why I think this happens. I’ll do this by showing you some images that I collected over a few weeks. So, with no ado and no acclaim, here are some images that I’ve run across in my own Facebook feed, shared by real people.
“So what?” you might ask, “That’s nothing compared to what I’ve seen shared.” That may be true. In fact—God help us—I’m sure it is.
However, in my mind, this all stings even worse once you realize that these were all shared by Christians. To compound it even more, at least one is a deacon in a church, and another is a pastor.
Does that amp up the shock value?
It did for me, right along with the righteous indignation and the internal, burning fury.
But since I can’t keep hitting a brick wall, I’m going to write about the wall instead.
Why Racism Goes Viral
It’s hard to know why offensive and ignorant things are so popular, but I think we can agree on three basic causes. For analysis deeper than this, I’d recommend some serious therapy.
1. Social media makes everything easier by removing the human element.
This is a drum that so many writers keep on beating, but few people seem to want to dance to its rhythm. When are we going to begin associating avatars with souls? Because that’s the root issue of so much of this. We share images and articles or make statements about whole groups of people without giving any consideration for the fact that they are exactly that: people, people for whom our Savior died. Then again, generalizing about large segments of a population is a
time-honored tradition going back centuries. What has begun to stand out is how violently we’ll attack individuals with our words. Granted, these individuals may be public figures, but again, they are still people and we are still not God.
In all of this, criticism has always existed, and in that, this violent extreme has always been there, too. The issue, however, is that in our post-modern era, we’ve amplified the extreme by giving people a communication tool that completely skirts the filter. Being forced to actually hear your voice say horrible, abominable words and phrases was an adequate deterrent for most individuals. Sadly, our latent racist bile is going a different route: bypassing the mouth and heading straight for the fingers and then the outside world.
2. We have become entrenched in our opinions.
The Internet was supposed to be the “great democratizer,” giving everyone equal access and equal voice, and in this chorus of voices, individuals could experience new points of view and ideas and learn, changing their mind as they see error of their ways.
This certainly has never happened.
Without eating too much of Andrew Keen’s lunch, I’d have to say that the Internet is not the answer to the world’s dual addiction to ignorance and misinformation. Instead, it’s only intensified these two problems. Instead of reading and listening and learning to think deeper and understand more, we have become opinion-spewing monsters, fed on a diet of extremist “hot takes” that only serve to bolster our already strongly-held beliefs.
3. Christians have forsaken the cross for the culture war.
This one might get me some hate mail and some might claim that I’m writing my own hot take, yet I feel pretty secure in this. For decades—and for those decades, I’d throw out the 1950’s through 1980’s—the Church found some success in merging Christian doctrine with the conservative cultural tropes and traditions of Western society. And while there is certainly some overlap between these two, the problem that we’re seeing today is that these cultural traditions, at some point, became religious elements and are now being clung to and fought over in the same way that we might fight for doctrine against heresy.
I don’t want to sound unsympathetic for those who hold to their culture in this way. They often don’t realize what they’re doing, and honestly, many of them have been taught to think and believe in this pseudo-religious by a long line of pastors who were better culture warriors than they were exegetes and expositors of God’s Word.
Thus, when these Christians get online, they are continually bombarded with evidence of cultural change, which offends them in the same way that heresy offends me: deeply.
Taken separately, none of these three cause people to share racist garbage on Facebook, but they’re power combines to produce a futile field for racist thoughts to grow.
- What’s the catalyst for the harvest?
- What transforms ignorant thoughts into expressed opinion?
The same tool which allows people to share without thinking, which connects them to news (and opinion) outlets that only confirm and never challenge their opinions and biases, and which puts them in constant contact with religiously (read: culturally) offensive material is also the very same tool that gives them easy access to offensive material which they can share in a split-second, far faster than that tortoise-like, nearly fossilized portion of their brains called “better judgement.”
Now, when I said “offensive” in that previous paragraph, I meant it in two ways: Firstly, as material that offends the sensibilities of less-racist individuals and/or offends the spirit of those about whom the material is targeting and secondly, as a weapon by which these culture warriors can strike back against what they perceive to be the forces of evil.
To many of these people, they’re not trying to hurt individuals. They’re “voices in the wilderness” yelling, to no avail, at the oncoming cultural destruction. They see themselves—forgive me, Rachel—as little Dutch boys who have their fingers in the dike, holding back a deluge of moral degradation and cultural dilution. Again, they’re not trying to be mean-spirited, at least without provocation. Feeling cornered by an enemy that seems to be everywhere—minorities, liberals, “gays”—they’re striking out blindly, without considering the effectiveness or appropriateness of their approach.
How to Respond
As Church techs, lay leaders, and pastors, what can we do to respond to such behavior? At the risk of over-listing, there are three things that I’d quickly suggest.
1. Don’t vilify the individual.
Try to see them in the context of someone who is fighting to save their world, as misguided as that might be. Remember: you’re not perfect. Offer them the same mercy and love that God offers you.
2. Approach them privately.
Notice that I didn’t say “reproach.” Start humbly as you explain to the individual how what they shared could be seen as offensive, even un-Christian. Only turn to a more aggressive approach as a last resort, and only if you’re in a position of authority and have a strong enough relationship with the individual to withstand such a turn. And, if at all possible, do this in person.
Perhaps this should have come first, as prayer is the only way we’ll have the mercy to offer others and the humility to approach those who’ve behaved improperly. Aside from this, prayer is most likely the only way to bring change to someone who’s been sharing racist or hateful things.
It’s amazing how quickly things spread or “go viral” on social media, even more so for controversial and racist posts. We as church leaders are the first line of defense for the church against such ignorant and hateful behavior. Don’t share, like, or even comment on it. Don’t ignore it either. Speak to those who share. Let them know that their objective of saving their culture is not the same as the objective that Christ has given us: saving souls and making disciples.